Left, Right, Left (p. 3)
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The castle of Clinten rose black on its hilltop in the rising sun. The road cut through the long shadow from the fortress's left as it climbed the steep incline to the main gate, exposing the sword arm of any approaching soldier.
The man now approaching was a soldier, but he bore no sword. Conredd felt the misery of failure descend upon him with the deep morning shadow thrown by Clinten's walls. He was returning in disgrace, having lost his companions to the Corsaley and Schwernric to a worse fate, the eldritch wood Fegmertt.
A sentry hailed him from atop the gatehouse.
"Give your name and business."
"Conredd, Carl of Clinten. The King will wish to see me."
The guard's helm disappeared as he recognized the name. The word "Carl" tasted bitter in Conredd's mouth, but commoners rarely were admitted to Clinten, and never without a noble escort.
Presently the great oaken gates swung outward, and Conredd entered the cobbled streets of Clinten. The main road ran straight and broad from the gate to the King's Keep, a square tower built of huge granite blocks atop the hill.
Conredd passed few people as he climbed the road past shops and barracks. Clinten was not a natural city, growing from a village at some key harbor or hub of trade. It existed solely as the administrative center of Brendhult. When Bertegar the Great had finished driving the Earth-giants from Brendhult with the holy sword Schwernric, he founded Clinten to be his capital. It had remained a fortress since then, a solid strongpoint from which the King could rule the far corners of Brendhult. No one lived in Clinten whose business was not the business of the nation.
The sentries at the gate to the Keep allowed Conredd to pass, recognizing his name as being that of a member of tne expedition sent to recover Schwernric. Conredd passed silently through the halls, taking notice of neither the close-fitted stone walls, nor the rich tapestries hung on them at intervals. His mind was directed inward while his feet followed the path to the king's sitting room automatically. He was worried that the King would punish him harshly, and afraid that the King would punish him lightly.
Conredd met a pair of Schulddric Guardsmen at the door to the King's chamber. Hearing his business, they swung the great brass knocker and called, "Conredd of Clinten wishes to speak with your majesty."
A muffled "Send him in" followed. The guards stepped to the side, allowing Conredd to enter.
The King sat at a polished mahogany table opposite a Jarl whose name Conredd did not bother to place. Murmuring, "your majesty," Conredd sank to one knee. The King rose with a rustle of fur-lined robes. As Conredd kissed the thick silver and gold rings on the King's fingers, the sovereign said,
"Rise, Conredd, Carl of Clinten. I bid you welcome to my keep."
"I accept, Aldric, King of Brendhult," replied Conredd, rising. He was exactly as tall as the austere-faced and beardless King.
"What word bring you of the holy blade Schwernric?"
"Alas, sire, my news is most ill." Conredd hung his head. "My dozen and one companions perished in battle with the Corsaley. In the end, I was able to come away with the sword Schwernric. But the holy blade fell into the fey powers of the wood called Fegmertt. I fear we shall never see it again."
The Jarl gasped and looked to the King with trembling breath and one hand at his mouth. Aldric's face was unreadable. Then he placed a hand on Conredd's shoulder. "I commend you, Carl Conredd, for your bravery and valor in recovering the holy blade Schwernric from the cursed Corsaley." The King sounded altogether pleased with the success of Conredd's quest. His face bore the same optimistic smile that Conredd remembered from the day he was inducted into the Schulddric Guard.
"Alas, my liege, I have failed," replied Conredd, determined to refuse Aldric's commendation. "For through my folly the sacred sword fell within the eldritch domain of Fegmertt, from which I deem that we shall never recover it."
Aldric let out a broad laugh. "My bold Conredd, do you doubt the strength of your Gods?" He gestured expansively as he spoke. "What power can a single small wood hold against the might of Brendhult? The Gods have triumphed over nearly the whole earth, so subduing Fegmertt should be simple. I ask you, what would a being of Faerie do with a blade as brimming with holiness as Schwernric? Why, I deem it ails the forest just to keep it within its bounds."
Conredd looked up at Aldric, his expression hovering between a smile and a frown. He fiercely wanted to believe the King, but the wound to his pride had enormous momentum.
Aldric laid a hand on Conredd's shoulder. "I see that you feel as though you are dishonored through your inability to return Schwernric. But the forest may yet yield up the holy blade. No elf can long resist the axes and the faith of the men of Brendhult. We shall fell the entire wood if necessary. If we give up the hunt for Schwernric, it would make a mockery of Bertegar the Great's war with the Earth-giants. And since you have been into eldritch Fegmertt, I appoint you to lead the expedition.
Conredd was giddy with relief. He brought Aldric's rings to his lips once again. "Thank you, my liege. Thank you."
Oësone's heart fluttered nervously. She had abandoned her circuits of the forest in the morning, having seen an imminent bane for her beloved Toëru in the four rowboats now being hauled up the bank of the Marcstren.
A dozen men had come across the wind-licked hills on the Brendhult side of the Marcstren an hour after dawn. They rode a four-horse wain whose cargo included four flat-sterned rowboats with oars. After loading stuffed packs into the vessels, they had rowed across.
Now the men were on the soil of Toëru, and Oësone could feel their presence like a snarl in the cloak of Faerie. They unloaded their gear, oblivious to the disruption they were causing in the pulse of the forest. Among the bearded faces, she saw one that was familiar -- Conredd, the man who had slain Gustalf a week ago. Her mmd recalled the ternbly holy sword Schwernric, which now lay safely within Angiën's lair. None of these men bore any talisman of such significance, but all carried long-shafted steel axes. Oësone desperately wished for Gustalf to come slipping through the undergrowth, taking down these intruders with his flashing sword. But that was not to be. Gustalf ... Oësone forced herself not to recall Gustalf's doom. Instead, she turned her thoughts to the men's purpose in coming to Fegmertt.
Her accumulated observations of the land beyond the Marcstren mocked her reasoning. From atop the bank of the river, her elven sight could detect no sign of human habitation in Brendhult, with the exception of a few faint streamers of smoke that rose from the horizon in the dead of winter. Brendhult was clothed in long grass and speckled with groves and patches of trees nearly as mighty as those of Toëru. It would be illogical for men to come to Fegmertt for land or timber.
It seemed illogical that men should set foot in Fegmertt in the first place. Gustalf's sharp sword had killed a dozen men in her tenure as Sungetoë, and they had all entered the forest in desperation and alone. Toëru seemed to have a reputation among men as being a fey place of unimaginable danger.
The men had gathered around a half dozen great trees near the bank. Suddenly, she felt a sharp pain, followed by a barrage of what felt like needles in her brain. The men were swinging their axes, biting into the ancient trees with the steel bits. Even Conredd, who had dwelt for a day in the forest, had pushed up his sleeves and taken up an axe. The web of Faerie cringed back from the men and their destruction, shriveling as if singed by a great fire. In all the time Oësone had been Sungetoë, no man had struck a tree more than once before Gustalf silenced his blade forever. But no such vengeance was imminent for Toëru now. Oësone briefly considered drawing on the power of Faerie to strike the men down as she had Conredd a week before. But the thought of using so much power as a weapon galled her. And Faerie could only stun, never kill. She would have to slay them with their own weapons while they lay helpless. That prospect revolted her even more. And even if she managed to kill the entire dozen, and cast their bodies into the Marcstren, what retribution might fall on Toëru? Oësone couldn't imagine that the twelve men had told no one of their trip to Fegmertt.
Oësone's thoughts returned to schwernric, as well as they could amid the stabbing of the axes. It was, after all, the holy blade of Brendhult. Conredd must have returned for it.
Her next thought locked her breath for a moment. If she had allowed Gustalf to kill Conredd, the Brendhult men would never suspect that schwernric rested in Fegmertt. They would think the Corsaley still had it. A war among men was not ideal, but it would be better than the total destruction of Faerie.
Oësone felt suddenly helpless in the face of the consequences of her miscalculation. She turned and ran from the edge of the Marcstren as tears threatened to flood her eyes.
Conredd wiped the sweat from his face with the bunched cloth on his upper arm. He spread his red hands wide to the cool evening breeze.
"What do we do with the trees?" asked Frenc, one of the men that king Aldric had appointed to help Conredd. He gestured to the dozens of trees that lay along the bank of the Marcstren with their lower ends still resting on the stumps. The river held most of the branches, and was at work tugging the small spring leaves loose and bearing them away. Conredd leaned with one sore hand against the birch he had just felled. He felt a momentary pang of shame. Oësone had taken him in and allowed him to recover, even after he had killed Gustalf. And now he had come back and begun to clear the forest. But then he reminded himself that she had taken Schwernric, knowing full well that the holy sword was the only reason he had escaped into Fegmertt. Besides, he didn't mean to destroy the entire forest.
"Just let them lay. Unless you feel like staying up tonight to saw them up into firewood. I don't plan to clear Fegmertt for farmland. I just want to convince the forest to give Schwernric back."
Frenc nodded. "Let's hope they do it soon. I don't want my soul stolen by some elf while I sleep."
"I don't think they'd do that. The forest's defenses aren't quite up to speed." Conredd looked up at the sky. The eastern horizon was swiftly darkening. The shadows of the mighty trees of Fegmertt pointed steadfastly into the forest, as if rejecting the lands beyond the domain of Faerie.
"That's enough for today," announced Conredd. "Let's get camp set up."
Oësone returned with the dark. As Sungetoë, her awareness was intimately tied to the ambient power of Faerie, so little solace for the pain the lumberjacks caused could be found in distance. But as the day wore on, she found that she slowly became numb to the injury. She decided she could not just wait and hope the men left.
The campsite was adjacent to the cutting, a ring of five green canvas A-frame tents. Oësone watched and waited as the men dined on some pungently scented food cooked over a fire. By ones and twos the men finished their meal and went off to their tents. Finally, only one man remained. He sat on a section of log next to the fire. When he showed no sign of retiring, Oësone surmised that he was remaining awake to watch for the unknown dangers of the forest.
Creeping closer, Oësone was mildly surprised to learn the watchman's identity. Her elven eyes, which could see nearly as well in the dark as in the light, identified Conredd. Oësone waited in the deep shadow of a mountain laurel for a solid hour, to be certain that the other men were sound asleep. She felt terribly naked without Gustalf's protection.
Conredd's back was to Oësone as she approached, so she forced herself to make noise. The crack of twigs and the sigh of leaves under her feet sounded disturbingly loud. Conredd turned as she entered the halo of firelight. His eyebrows jumped. Quickly gathering his composure, he said,
She could see relief and a tiny morsel of guilt in his eyes. He set down the stick that he had been using to prod the coals and folded his arms across his chest. "Have you come to return Schwernric?"
"Ah, that is what thou hopest to gain by cutting down my trees. Didst thou think it was hidden in some trunk?" Despite her scathingly sarcastic tone, Oësone's heart was sinking. schwernric now rested safely within Angiën's lair, far beyond her powers to reclaim. She could as easily give him King Aldric's crown as the holy sword.
"I had the trees felled because I wanted to send a message. Gustalf is dead. I could log off this whole forest if I needed to. I will leave -- but only with Schwernric."
Oësone scowled at him. "If thou logged off all of Toëru, still thou wouldst be no closer to possessing thy holy sword."
"Speak plainly, elf."
Oësone drew herself up to her full height. "Thou hast no comprehension of how things stand."
"Enlighten me," challenged Conredd.
"Gustalf was so long a being of Faerie that thy holy sword poisoned him. Before he died, he bore it to the lair of the Red Worm Angiën, where the walls would shield Faerie from its holiness. Even could I carry Schwernric away, I would perish in Angiën's flame ere I returned to thee. Go home, I say, for Schwernric is lost to thy people."
Conredd stood still for a moment. undecided. Then he said quitely, "I cannot return to Aldric a failure. He forgave me once, but I fear I would not be so lucky this time."
Oësone gave him a look of bewilderment. "So what wilt thou do, continue to cut down the forest? I promise thee, naught wilt thou gain from that but blistered palms."
"I didn't say I was going to finish cutting down the forest. I want you to show me the way to Angiën's lair. My life is worth nothing without Schwernric."
"Thou canst not mean that. Thou knowest not the power of Angiën."
"If I cut down the entire forest, I'll eventually find this lair myself." Conredd placed his foot on the section of log that served as a seat.
Oësone nodded glumly. "Come. I shall show thee the way."
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